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Saturday, September 29, 2012

October Mourning, written by Leslea Newman. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2012. $19.00 ages 14 and up

"This is just to say
I'm sorry you came back to me:
the land of your birth
the land of your heart
the land that they call
the Equality State


Forgive me
for not teaching you
what every Cowboy knows:
once a player is out
he may not be safe
at home

I knew that this book would affect me in deep and enduring ways. Leslea Newman has chosen to tell Matthew Shepard's story in a flawless diversity of voices...all having a real or imagined role in the events of that dark night in Laramie, Wyoming. I don't know how you ask yourself the questions she must have asked to include the fence, the clothesline used to tie him, a fallen mountain biker, the doctor, the doe whose nighttime nesting place was nearby, and the stars above.

Laramie, Wyoming gained infamy on that October night in 1998, when two young men lured Matthew Shepard from a downtown bar, with lies and the pretense of acceptance of his sexual orientation. They took him to a field outside of town, robbed him, beat him and then tied him to a fence and left him for dead. This hate crime was a wake-up call for many and spurred Matthew's family to work tirelessly toward having a hate crime bill passed. Almost fourteen years later, some progress has been made; hatred and harassment for the gay community has not ended. What can you do to help 'erase hate'?

In the 68 poems written for this book, the author gives a clear picture for the events as they happened. She acknowledges that the thoughts and feelings are her own. As a piece of historical fiction written in verse, they are meant to convey her own interpretation of Matthew Shepard's anguish and death, and its repercussions.

She writes with compassion, brilliance, and enduring heartbreak:

"THEN AND NOW

Then I was a son
Now I am a symbol

Then I was a brother
Now I am an absence

Then I was a friend
Now I am a memory

Then I was a person
Now I am a headline

Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost

Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson

In her afterword, Leslea Newman talks about speaking to the students at the University of Wyoming,  at an event planned before Matthew's brutal murder, and that took place on the day he died:

"I started my presentation by asking for a moment of silence for Matthew Shepard. Then I addressed the LGBT students in the audience, who I knew were feeling particularly vulnerable and needed special words of encouragement to go on despite their rage, sorrow, and fear. Next I addressed the heterosexual members of the audience, reminding them that they had a unique opportunity to show the world what kind of allies they were. Finally, I asked every member of the audience to think of one thing they could do to help put a stop to homophobia and to promise the person next to them that they would do that one thing before the week was through. Then I launched into my speech."

Leslea Newman was compelled to write these poems. She wrote them in a variety of forms (which she describes in the back matter): haiku, rhyming couplets, lists, found poems, modelling, concrete, and an acrostic. Each has power to have the reader see point of view, and that is the true genius of this work. She also provides notes to explain the origin of the epigraphs that begin many chapters and the reports from which she gathered needed information. A list of resources completes the book.

It is important to hear what Leslea has to say about the poems:

"Though somewhat heavyhanded, these poems are sure to instill much-needed empathy and awareness to gay issues in today’s teens I was inspired to write about Matt's death from the imagined perspectives of the "silent witnesses" to the murder. I wanted the stars, the fence, and the wind to symbolically bear witness to the tragedy spawned by hatred, and to deliver a message of hope."

and

"It is my wish that October Mourning will carry that message of hope, born from a horrific act of violence, to our youth. Those entering college this fall were only four years old when Matt Shepard was murdered. Those starting high school were only infants. But Matt's legacy will live on, and I intend October Mourning to be a vehicle for that legacy, to help our youth remember the lesson of his life and death: That all of us, no matter how old, no matter where we live, deserve to be free to be who we are. Hatred ended Matt's life, but love can unite us."

Now, please listen as Leslea reads two of the poems...

http://youtu.be/2XFdG3Id9Sg

Oh Nuts! Written by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Dan Krall. Bloomsbury, Penguin. 2012. $18.00 ages 3 and up

"They outran the cheetah.
Outstared the owl.
Outswam the piranhas..
And, for good measure,
outzapped the poison dart frog.
But...
everyone was too busy
watching the possum
play dead to notice."

There are a lot of days at the zoo when the animals aren't up to much of anything. People continue to flock there to stare at immobile, disinterested denizens of those zoos; the tiger knaws on a bone, the koala eats eucalyptus, the elephant ignores visitors and the sloth sleeps. It's all in day's work for them.

Meanwhile, three chubby-cheeked chipmiunks are vying for attention:

"They whooshed through grass,
darted up trees,
and zipped over branches.
But..."

It seems nobody cares about the chipmunks!

Cutesy is as her name suggests....fashionable, full of herself and always wanting to be noticed.
Blinky is thoughtful, nervous and musical.
Bob is Bob...overweight, groovy and laid-back.

They try everything they can think of to catch the attention of zoo patrons. They try makeovers, a rock concert and they even put themselves in real danger. Do the crowds care?  Nothing!

Then, Bob has a BIG idea. Will it work? and do they want it to be as successful as they had hoped?

You will see when you check out this cheekily funny new book by Tammi Sauer. Dan Krall shows a great sense of comedy in his portrayal of  the zoo animals and the people who love to visit them, the chipmunks and their determination to come to the attention of all visitors, and the many amusing scenarios suggested by Tammi Sauer's humorous (and oftentimes, sarcastic) text. The colors are dense and attract attention at every turn of the page. I found myself going back time and again to check expression and placement of the illustrations on the page. I haven't seen other work by this artist; Oh, Nuts! will change that. I am off to his website to see what I've been missing.

The Templeton Twins Have an Idea, written by Ellis Weiner and illustrated by Jeremy Holmes. Chronicle Books, Raincoast Books Canada. 201. $18.99 ages 9 and up

"A hobby, which is an old-fashioned word people don't use anymore, refers to something you do simply because you like it and find it interesting and fulfilling. You don't get paid to do it. You don't get extra credit in school for doing it. You don't do it because you want to impress your friends or look good when you apply for university or a job."
 
 There is a lot of zaniness involved in reading this comical and at times, endearing adventure about twins John and Abigail. Many readers will find great enjoyment as the twins lead the way in dealing with the dilemma that presents itself when an old student of their professor father's starts making noise about sharing the glory for a brand new invention...an invention that is sure to turn the world on its ear.

The twins are wise and full of self-confidence and wit. The narrator has a unique and full of fun voice that will keep even the most reluctant on course as they navigate the action created by Ellis Weiner in this first book of a new series. He definitely leaves his readers wanting more; they will keep a keen eye out for the next instalment.

There is a smattering of mystery, some interactive chapter endings, asking irrelevant and irreverent questions that will have some readers howling at the absurdity of it all. It's just what the doctor ordered for this age group. They will cheer for the twins and their father as he faces former student Dean D. Dean who insists Professor Templeton has stolen his idea for the Personal One-Man Helicopter. The professor is just as adamant that he has done nothing of the kind. Did he or didn't he?

I think that Jeremy Holmes gets the artwork exactly right, to keep kids interested in this quirky pair and following their fast paced adventure. They are very unusual individuals, as are the other characters. The changing background colors, the set of questions at the end of each chapter, the changing fonts and the many quirky captions and conversations that are inserted here and there grab their attention and keep them reading.

The irreverence of the sometimes aggressive narrator, the occasional stops to include something felt absolutely necessary at that particular place in the story and the inclusion of the meatloaf recipe had me 'har-haring'. I  know the same will happen for the middle graders who pick this book up, in hopes of a fun story to entertain them.
 
Here's one of my favorite quotes from the narrator, and entirely typical of the many intrusions created:

"If you don’t remember me saying that, I urge you to turn back to Chapter 2 (the first Chapter 2) and refresh your memory, because I distinctly remember saying it, and I remember you reading it.”

Bring on the next adventure, please!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Looking For Me...in this great big family, written by Betsy R. Rosenthal. Houghton Mifflin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thomas Allen & Son, 2012. $18.99 ages 9 and up

"Dad keeps his belt
right where it belongs -
in the loops of his pants.

Maybe his hand would get too tired
whipping so many bottoms.
Maybe there are just too many of us
to hit.
Maybe this is what
safety in numbers
really means."

In this debut novel in verse, Betsy Rosenthal shares her mother's story of growing up in a very large family, and not always being aware of her place in it, or in the world at large. While she loves her rambunctious and loving extended family, she often feels lost.

"I'm just plain Edith.
I'm number four,
and should anyone care,
I'm eleven years old,
with curly black hair."

Being among the oldest, Edith does a lot of the care giving for her younger siblings. She also works at the family diner, often until very late. There is a lot going on...the depression, many mouths to feed, and never enough money to feed and clothe everyone. It is rare for the children to have new clothes, or shoes. They often wear hand-me-downs. They almost lose their house at one point:

"When I finally got home,
my head still filled with thoughts
of all I'm missing at Bubby's,
I see a sign posted in front
of our row house -
AUCTION."

Luckily, the government intervenes and the family stays put. Readers' awareness of the family's plight might be heightened by much of what has happened with other families in the last five years. It is a worry to many, as it was to Edith and her family during the tough times of the Depression. She finds it quite a revelation that there are people who have even less than her family does.

A poignant and often funny year in the life of one large Jewish family, this story will keep interested readers entertained and enlightened about a life that is perhaps quite different than their own. Even her simple wishes are often too much. Edith is lucky to have an understanding and empowering teacher who encourages to make a place for herself and to discover who she really is. Her voice is clear, personal and as readers we care about her very much.

Family photographs are a welcome addition, giving the audience a real family to consider. A glossary is helpful for unfamiliar terms and an author's note gives background information concerning the author's mother and the life she led after growing up:

"Edith, "the little mother," eventually grew up to become an extraordinary mother to my brother and me. And in case you're wondering, she did end up going to college, the only girl in her family to do so."  

Machines Go To Work in the City, written and illustrated by William Low. Henry Holt, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2012.$18.99 ages 3 and up

"Cars and trucks stop when
the traffic lights are not working.

A police officer moves
the traffic along.
Will the officer fix
the broken light?

No, when the bucket truck
arrives, the signal crew
will fix the traffic light."

Oh, I can just see the faces of those children who love machines, and want to know all that they do!
To say that I love the premise of this book would be to downplay my interest in it. It is a very strong addition to the new books for children who love to name machines and to watch them work.

The machines are varied and recognizable to most children...beginning with a garbage truck, and moving on to a train, a giant vacuum truck, a bucket truck, a crane, a baggage carrier, and an airplane. Lest any captivated reader not know about  them and the jobs they do, Mr. Low provides captioned entries and labelled illustrations for each at the back of this stunning book. It adds to the allure for fans and for those who spend time reading with them to help them navigate the wealth of information shared, both in words and in pictures.

Each section contains two double-page spreads. On the first we are introduced to the machine with the noise it makes and its name. Turn the page and you see that machine once again, and are made aware of a problem it is sure to solve. Then, flip the gatefold and you will see what happens with it. Each question is answered before moving on to the next machine on the list. The language is clear and straightforward, offering answers to sure-to-be-asked questions from intrigued listeners. The city setting is always evident; its importance is, however, secondary to the vehicle being described. Readers will be aware of it in muted backgrounds, keeping the machines at the forefront.

There is so much to see in the rich, fully-detailed artwork. The colors are bold and invite careful study before ever dreaming of moving on to the next page. It is almost impossible to see the edge of the gatefold; he has done a remarkable job of matching one image to the other. Light and shadow add depth to each and give the reader a sense of life as it happens on the streets of a big city. There is always work to be done, and machines have a very important role to play in the daily lives of the people living there.  William Low has a great love for his setting and his subject; it is fully evident on every page.

 I have mentioned perfect purchases in prior posts. If there's a little one in your family who loves machines and the work they do, you would not go wrong in making sure this is one of the books that finds its way to your library shelf.

I have not seen a copy of his first book about machines, (Machines Go to Work, 2009). That will soon be rectified.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Button Down, written by Anne Ylvisaker. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2012. $19.99 ages 8 and up

"You're the quarterback. It's up to you to check whether they see Ralph or not. If they do, you pretend to give him the ball, then throw it to an end instead. That's the fellow who has been lined up on the end of the row. He should be one of your fastest players and a good catch. He'll run around Burton's players and look for you to throw him the ball, because you told him ahead of time to do it."

I love this Button family. If luck wasn't bad, they wouldn't have any. But, they stay strong and love each other. Thisbook focuses on Ned and his love of football. He is a huge fan of Lester Ward, a local boy who is off to play for the University of Iowa. All Ned can think about is getting to Iowa City to see him play!

Before he goes, Lester tosses his old football into a crowd of eager fans and Ned catches it. What a coup for a Button boy who has no money for buying a real football. Before he has a chance to savor the moment, Burton Ward (Lester's younger brother and the town bully) snatches it away from Ned and uses it to play after school ball with his crowd. That leaves Ned and his friends to play with a newspaper football, weighted down with a rock in the center to give it some heft.

Ned loves his Granddaddy Ike, despite his curmudgeonly ways and his daily demand for another chapter of The Wizard of Oz. When Ned explains the football dilemma, Granddaddy offers to teach his young grandson strategy, a  sure way to get the upper hand on Burton and his gang. Ned is not sure; but Ike convinces him to give it a try and then teaches even more plays to Ned's group of footballers. He teaches them to run against the other guys, and how to use their smarts rather than their size to lead them to victory.

Granddaddy Ike is not healthy and when he realizes that his heart is giving out and his days are numbered, he wants his grandson to see a game in Iowa City. Times are tough, there is little money for frills at the beginning of the dire days of the Depression. He ensures that Ned will get a chance to live his dream. His love for Ned shines through every scene that they share. In the end, he manages a surprise that imbues Ned with all the confidence and joy his grandfather imagined for him.

Wonderful storytelling, and a most memorable and fun-loving family will capture attention for this second story about the Buttons. It is a companion to The Luck of the Buttons, and is a welcome chance to visit with them again.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Think Big, written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton. Bloomsbury, Penguin. 2012. $18.00 ages 3 and up

"Brainstorm
Blank page
Scene set
Onstage
Pinch salt
Dice, chop
Click, flash
Time stop
Big voice
On pitch"

As you read the 61 words in this book, your mind will race with thoughts, memories and high regard for Liz Garton Scanlon who in two word lines has captured the heart and soul of the artistic...no matter the medium or the skill level.

Vanessa Brantley Newton magically chronicles the energy and industry of a group of enthusiastic artists who are preparing for their very own art show. On the front endpapers, she fills shelves with bold color, an exceptional array of materials and an invitation to come along and see what happens when children are allowed to explore their creative spirits.

Poets are adept at finding the right words to convey their ideas and thoughts in the most precise and perfect way. In two word lines and rhyming couplets, Liz Scanlon introduces us to all manner and means of creating beauty in the hands of young children. They bring such joy to life and their project. I don't know that they miss a single beat in their quest to entertain the audience.

Accompanying the bursting-with-energy rhyme are a group of five...only five? high-spirited young artists who delight in every artistic pursuit. They are painters, musicians, thespians, set designers, chefs, photographers, singers, tailors, potters, and dancers...even sign painters, crafters and wait for it...performers. The pages sing with joy, in charcoal and mixed media illustrations using collage, draw attention constantly to the delight the children find in their imaginations as they lovingly prepare for their 'show'. An enthusiastic crowd enjoys every brilliant moment. We, too, have a front row seat. 

It makes me want to jump right in and join them!

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, written by Susan Goldman Rubin and illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2011. $10.99 ages 9 and up

"On the evening of October 20, 1943, Irena's aunt and Janina Grabowska, a dear friend and courier, came to visit. It was Irena's name day, and the women stayed up talking until around three o'clock in the morning. Banging on the front door awakened them. It was the Gestapo, the German secret police! Irena immediately tried to throw the precious roll of names out the window."

Irena Sendler did not set out to be a hero. She just did what she thought she should do to help the children who were trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during the worst of times in the Second World War. When the Germans brought Poland under their rule at the beginning of that war, Irena quickly joined the Polish resistance. Her need to help the Jewish people was strong. She knew the risks she was taking.

Along with others, she disguised herself as a nurse; they were allowed to help within the walls of the ghetto. In 1942, as a member of Zegota, she was put in charge of the Department of Help for Jewish Children. In that role, showing unbelievable courage and with no fear for her own safety, she helped to secure safe passage for almost four hundred children, using an ingenious array of escape plans. 
She used the sewers, the ambulances and fire trucks that entered the Jewish compound, even a carpenter's tool box, often drugging the children to keep them still and quiet as they passed right by the Nazi guards. She did not promise that their children would be safe, but many parents opted to let her take them in hopes they would survive and escape the death camps.

It was an ordeal to find placements for the many children who needed help, but she did her best. She left them in convents, with willing Polish families and even in orphanages to keep them safe. All were given false names, and certificates of birth. Irena kept careful records, despite the inherent danger; all with hope that families would one day be reunited. She protected the records as best she could. Arrested by the Nazis in 1943, she faced certain death, until a large amount of money fell into the right hands and she was released.

At the end of the war, she was alive and her records were handed over to the Jewish Committee. Because of those carefully preserved papers, some Polish children were able to find relatives following the war.

Irena always maintained that she was no hero. Rather, 'the real heroes were the Jewish children and their mothers, who gave away those most dear to their hearts to unknown persons.'

A list of resources is helpful and might lead interested readers to find out more about this remarkable woman. Irena died in 2008, age 98. This book, with stunning oil paintings by Bill Farnsworth, is a fitting tribute to a woman of great compassion and courage.


Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, written and illustrated by Ian Falconer. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster. 2012. $19.99 ages 3 and up

"I think I'm having an
identity crisis," she told
her parents.
"I don't know what I
should be."
"Well, " said her father,
"you'll always be my little
princess."
"That's the problem," said
Olivia."

Olivia! I have missed you! I'm overjoyed to see you again.

There are many adjectives to be used when describing this feisty, independent, opinionated, wily, brilliant, young pig. I fell in love with her when she was first brought to my attention in Ian Falconer's debut book for this inspired series, simply called Olivia (Simon & Schuster, 2000). There we met an exuberant young porker who was very good at wearing people out and scaring the pants off her younger brother Ian. Thank goodness, she hasn't changed.

Her concern these days is the plethora of princesses that come out of the woodwork every time little girls (and boys) get together. She is distraught, seeking guidance from her parents while determined to remain true to herself.All the other girls at Pippa's birthday party looked alike, thought alike, danced daintily together. Olivia made a statement:

"I chose a simple French sailor shirt, matador pants, black flats, a strand of pearls, sunglasses, a red bag, and my gardening hat."

She's back...bravo, Olivia!     

She's even willing to be a princess.. there 'are alternatives' to pink, tiaraed and tutued. You go, girl!

Olivia recognizes that there was a time when she wanted to take the princess role. She has simply outgrown it. She doesn't understand why all of her friends and schoolmates want to be the same. She has other aspirations, including:

"Or I could be a reporter and expose corporate malfeasance."

This brilliant artist imbues every single page with Olivia, Olivia, Olivia. I could not love her more, and Ian Falconer also shows a splendid love for her. The charcoal and gouache characters are infused with emotions that crack me up...the unimpressed teacher taking umbrage to Olivia's blue warthog costume which sets off a frantic fear in the bevy of perfect princesses at Halloween, the tearful bedtime ritual of stories that evoke sad feelings for the downtrodden, the imagined ministering of a nurse practicing bandaging and 'various other treatments' on her brothers, and the after bath diva, clothed in striped richness before brushing her teeth.

Again, his use of brilliant red detail keeps us constantly focused on this precious, perky, precocious, porcine prima donna....exactly where it should be!

Drama, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Scholastic, 2012. $11.99 ages 10 and up

"Well, HE seems nice.
Callie, I wouldn't get too
attached to the performers.
WHAT!? WHY?
It'll only distract you from
what's most important. Our
job is to stay focused on what's
BEHIND the stage.
You'd rather we just ignore
each other completely?"

I make it completely clear to anyone who knows me and asks about my reading preferences that there is little I won't read, but graphica is not high on my list of favorites. When our kids were young, we read to them often and at all times of the day and night; but, they remember a pat line of mine: "I don't do comics."  Too much interpretation and discussion of what is happening in the story...blah, blah, blah. Of course, that is one of the best things about graphica for young readers. They must make inferences, predictions, and are always thinking story, story, story. I loved them when I was a younger reader, for reading to myself. Now, I never read comic strips, rarely pick up a graphic novel.

Raina Telgemeier is changing that for me, and other graphic artists. I will admit that I am less likely to just pass them by than I was a few years ago. I bought multiple copies of Smile (Graphix, Scholastic, 2012) because I loved the way she told a story from her life in a way that was so engaging. Kids love them and they have been a great giveaway at workshops. I will do the same with Drama.

In it, she takes me back to high school days and major productions. I never wanted to be on stage, but I loved the shared camaraderie of a community of like-minded individuals working toward a common goal...and it was FUN! 

Callie heads up the set design crew for her middle school's spring production. There is nothing she won't try to make the performance more authentic. She works hard with her crew to bring her vision to fruition, all the while dealing with the day-to-day things that are happening backstage and at home.  Her pain-in-the-neck little brother continues his snooping ways, attractive male newcomers, old boyfriend, the school dance, fights with best friends...all the while she remains focused on the job at hand and her love for stage work.
             
This is another wonderful addition to the growing list of graphica for young fans. Raina Telgemeier  ably offers up Callie's world, at school and at home, alone and with friends, in happy times and sad, triumphant and dejected. We feel her joy and her pain (be sure to take a careful look at the double page that shows her rushing off to meet her new crush at the ball field). It is an authentic look at today's adolescent world, with its 'drama' and its familiarity. Callie is a great role model for other girls who are interested in theatre and finding their place in a middle school world.             

A Hen for Izzy Pippik, written by Aubrey Davis and illusrated by Marie Lafrance. Kids Can Press, 2012. $18.95 ages 4 and up

"Before long, roosters crowed from rooftops and hens nested in every nook. Hundreds of chickens flapped about the square. They toppled trashcans, fought for food and cackled from morning to night. They grew rowdier by the day, and people's grumbles grew with them."

Look at those jaunty beings, heading away together. They are filled with joy and panache. There is something about the two of them that lets us know they were meant to be together, and are very pleased to be.

We meet Shaina sitting on the steps of her family home, listening to the inside sounds, while fretting about the state of things. She wants to be busy and helpful; there are no jobs for a young girl in a town that is suffering its way through the desperate times of the Depression.  As she sits and worries, 'a peckety peck on her toe' causes her to jump up and pay attention. A chicken has made an appearance and Shaina is intent on finding its owner, After some searching through the market stalls she discovers a broken crate, with Izzy Pippik's name on it. Shaina decides that the hen is his and she will keep it until he returns.

Her mother and grandfather are delighted with thoughts of chicken dinner; but Shaina will hear none of it. Izzy Pippik will be back, and his chicken will be waiting for him. She is a tenacious protector of Yevka and her progeny. Twelve eggs hatch twelve chicks who cause chaos in Izzy's house:

"In a few weeks, twelve fuzzy chicks were peeping and pecking and poking about. They ate the baby's biscuits and spilled Grandpa's soup. They scratched Mama's stockings to pieces. They grew peskier by the day, and Mama's grumbles grew with them."

Out they go, onto the street, where the townspeople greet them with an eye for sustenance. Shaina remains protective and will not let them touch the chickens. They belong to someone else. Soon the town is overrun with tame chickens, a surefire draw for inquisitive visitors and a rare boon to a town in dire straits. What will happen when Izzy Pippik returns, as Shaina is so sure he will?

Aubrey Davis is a skillful storyteller and he brings that storytelling voice to this book, making it a perfect read aloud. His careful choice of language is such fun to read, and I know I will be sharing it in classrooms often. He has created a memorable, honest young lady in Shaina. She is worthy of our admiration and is the living definition of chutzpah:

"Shaina pointed to the enormous flock fluttering about the square.
"But I only lost this hen," he said.
"These are her chicks, her chicks' chicks and her chicks' chicks' chicks,"
she explained. "If she's yours, they're all yours."

Using pencil colored in Photoshop, Marie Lafrance takes us into the heart of Shaina's home and community with her humor and strong, emotional details. I love her use of color...quiet and calm in shades of olive green, grey, brown and blue. She uses fiery red for Izzy's bow and Yevka's comb, always bringing our attention back to them, which is right where it should be.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tell Me About Your Day Today, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Lauren Springer. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster. 2012. $19.99 ages 2 and up

"And Greedy Goose
told him about her day -
the who,
the what,
the why,
and the way...
the whole wild thing...
turned out okay."


All those things that make going to bed easier, no matter the age we are. Some people like warm baths, others like to read, little ones loves cuddles, and stories, and drinks of water, and kisses, and another story, and cuddles....you get the picture. The little boy in this book likes a kiss, and a story and a gentle good night from his mom; but he saves the best for last.

He might be the only boy in the world who loves bedtime, I'm not sure. The delight in his eyes as he settles in next to his mom to enjoy their nightly ritual is evident to little listeners. But, the best is yet to come!  Once the lights are turned out, he talks with Greedy Goose, who has a cough. As she tells him about her day, we take note of what happened in a series of spot and panel illustrations.  Blue Horse is next...and so it goes until all of their days have been shared, and they finish with the boy's description of the day he has had with his stuffed toys in tow. It's all OK!

If we didn't have Lauren Stringer's lovely acrylic artwork to ponder, we might not know what has happened throughout the day to be shared between friends. She creates a cozy charm with her soft edges, and cool colors. Light infuses every page, shining in the faces of both Mom and her bedtime boy. Moonlight shines through the window as the pals settle in for a good night's sleep. As they tell their stories, the backgrounds are daytime white, while the storytelling scenes are set on almost navy backgrounds evoking evening calm.

Mem Fox knows what young readers need, and she works extremely hard to find the perfect word and phrase to ensure that they come away from the reading loving the experience. Her repetitive, rhythmic language is just right for those learning about the magic of the written word.  She's done it again, and we thank her!     

Bear Has A Story to Tell, written by Phillip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2012. $18.99 ages 3 and up

 
"Many months passed and the sun returned. It melted the snow and woke the trees. Bear rolled out onto the green grass. "It's spring!" he said. "Now I can tell my story!" But first, Bear brought Mouse an acorn."

It isn't that you haven't met bears in books for kids before now; it's just that you may not yet have met such an expressive and profoundly emotional one. He makes you want to give him a big bear hug, rather than the other way. His demeanor is one of warm concern for his friends and the work they must to do to get ready for winter. Bear has a story to tell; he 'puts it to bed' as he realizes his friends, Mouse, Duck, Frog and Mole have more pressing issues than to listen to it right now.

Despite his larger-than-life appearance, he does not overwhelm those he meets. He looks at them woefully, then bends forward to lean in and listen to their woes, and to offer his much-needed assistance:

"He helped Mouse find seeds on the forest floor."

"He raised his paw to check the direction of the wind."

"Bear dug a frog-sized hole between two evergreens."

And when he finds his friend Mole already tucked in for the long winter sleep, he wishes him a quiet good night. Too sweet for words he is.

It isn't long until his own weary eyes close and his own sleep begins. Then, awakening with the spring sun, he is suddenly aware that it is time to tell his story. Before he allows himself the personal pleasure of welcoming spring with his story, he helps his friends and waits with them for Mole's nose to show itself. Now, he's ready....or is he?

In the true spirit of friendship his friends listen to his lament:

"It was such a good story," he said, hanging his head. "But winter is a very long time for a bear to remember."

This is a lovely story told with compassion, and a great deal of charm. Erin Stead matches the tone with softly gentle watercolor artwork that keeps the focus on character, while also providing a perfect setting for the story's arc. The autumn leaves add warmth, even as the animals prepare for the months ahead. As they continue to fall, the white of the sky blocks the sun and brings a feeling of cool isolation. (I love when we have to turn the book on its side to see the real depth of the hole that Mole has found for protection against the harsh reality of the winter season). So much to see and to love on each of these pages. Bravo!

National Geographic book of animal poetry, edited by J. Patrick Lewis. National Geographic, Random House. 2012. $27.95 ages 6 and up

"Every time
I stand and stare
At the big
White polar bear,
I wonder
While he's
Swimming there,
If he has on
Long underwear."  
     -  Leland B Jacobs

As I paged through this book. skipping from place to place, I found many of the poems that have found a space in my poetry journals. Some are from years ago, when I first started making a concerted effort to read poetry daily with my students and also with the kids at home. It was a great deal of fun discovering poems that I knew as a kid alongside new poets and their amazing work. Some of them I have been reciting or reading for all these years. Now, I can add new favorites to those frayed and constantly growing journals.

J. Patrick Lewis has another hit on his hands and he must be delighted to be sharing space with such revered company. Really, it is a grand book and should be on every school library shelf and in homes everywhere.

"Polliwogs

Come see
What I found!
Chubby commas,
Mouths round,
Plump babies,
Stubby as toes.
Polliwogs!
Tadpoles!

Come see
What I found!
Frogs-in-waiting!
Huddled in puddles,
Snuggled in mud."
      -  Kristine O'Connell George

The poetry chosen is full of small moments, funny and serious. The variety ranges from old to new, short to longer, loud to quiet, gentle to harsh...all meant to entice youngsters into a world of poetry that focuses on the animals they so love. The poetic forms cover a wide and intriguing range, allowing us to see how many poets look closely at their own world and what form they use to describe it. The voices are clear and clever, and oh, so memorable.

The design of the book is awesome. Each photo has a very carefully placed caption so that readers will know what animals are on each page. It is my understanding that Mr. Lewis anthologized  the poems, a senior photography editor at National Geographic selected the spectacular photographs that adorn each page, and then a truly brilliant designer put the two together...what an inspired team!

"I Saw A Sloth Play Soccer

I saw a sloth play soccer
with a tortoise and a snail.
They were all enthusiastic
and determined to prevail.

They were positively passionate
and truly in the groove,
and by watching very closely
I could almost see them move."
            - Kenn Nesbitt

Listen closely to J. Patrick Lewis' final poem here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4l_EQCwzJc

He follows the text with a two page lesson on writing poems about animals, and then with welcome lists which include the resources he used, and title, poet, first line, subject indexes which are sure to prove useful for future perusal. Wonderful!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Citizen Scientists, written by Loree Griffin Burns with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. Henry Holt, Macmillan. Raincoast Books. 2012.$14.99 ages 8 and up

"It all started with the lady at the end of the driveway on the first warm night of spring. She wasn't doing anything, just standing there outside her car with a clipboard in her hand and a flashlight on her head."

Why, you ask? Well, that's the weird thing. She said she was counting frogs. Did you hear that right? Yep, that's what she was doing. She said 'the easiest way to count frogs is to listen to the mating calls they make after the sun goes down.'  Did you know that? That is only one of the many wonderful and eye-opening things you will learn when you read this book about  'regular' people who help scientists with their work.

I was totally engrossed in it last night, when I was supposed to be watching the ball game. I guess that says something about the nature of this very informative new book by noted nonfiction author Loree Burns. Her books read like a personal conversation. In this one, she makes a case for each of us to find a way we can help build information for scientists. We can do that right where we live. With encouragement from this gifted writer, I can't imagine anyone not seeing the value in taking part in some the scientific observations that help inform research.

She says that citizen science is "the study of our world by the people who live in it." People with an interest in being citizen scientists become involved in four projects...one for each season of the year. It begins in fall and concerns the monarch butterfly. She gives clear instructions for capturing and studying a monarch, determining its sex and then preparing to tag it. She explains the process for tagging, the reasons for doing it and introduces her audience to the first scientist who invited citizen scientists to help him tag monarchs so that other scientists like him could determine their migration path. If each person who saw that tagged butterfly let him know where they saw it, their track might become clear. So much has been learned since Dr. Urquhart put out this invitation in 1952. Her advice for helping is succinct:

"Get yourself a net. Find a good butterfly habitat. Come fall, start scanning the horizon for that telltale flurry of orange and black. Do you see one? Great. Go get it!"
Each chapter tells about successful citizen scientists, offers a checklist of things to do to prepare for you foray into scientific discovery and provides a quick quiz concerning different types of the observed species.

In the second chapter, we move to winter and a chance to be a birdwatcher who takes part in annual bird counts. Moving through the cold, clear days of winter, we leap forward to spring and the frog count. With each new season, we learn much about the need for the help of citizens in our world to make unusual and sometimes alarming discoveries that might otherwise go undetected. Finally, we welcome summer and a chance to get up close and personal with the dainty, helpful, aphid-eating  ladybug.

This book is perfect...it will interest and inspire its readers to get outside and see how to help, perhaps in their own backyard. The back matter is as exciting as the rest of the book. It includes a full page of information about books, field guides, and Internet sources for each of the four chapters. Additional resources, answers to the 'quick quiz' from each chapter are given, a bibliography, a glossary, and index will take readers back to the exact pages they would like to revisit.
The photographs add substance and beauty at every turn of the page. They are clear and give readers information about every aspect of the information shared. It's good to see the scientists who work tirelessly so that they might teach us about what they are learning, the citizen scientists (people just like you and me), and the wondrous critters whose stories are told. This book is a winner!

Those Darn Squirrels Fly South, written by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thomas Allen & Son, 2012. $19.99 ages 4 and up

"When the first frost arrived, the bonga birds took off, followed by the baba birds and the yaba birds. They circled the house, waved goodbye to Fookwire, and headed south. The floogle bird spent a few minutes scarfing up the last of the farfale seeds. Then he took off, too."

Oh, no! His beloved birds are starting to feel the cool winds of autumn. It's a sure signal that they had better tune up their GPS and begin preparations for their annual southern trek. They don't want to be in Mr. Fookwire's back yard when winter arrives.

Mr. Fookwire's heart is filled with sadness and longing. He doesn't want to be ALONE. Up until now the squirrels have provided a modicum of company; this year they have other ideas in mind:

"Now, not many people know this, but squirrels have a comprehensive understanding of aerodynamic engineering. They built gyro-copters from pinecones. They built gliders from leaves. They even built a zeppelin from an old shopping bag."

So, when they see the birds take to the air,  the squirrels have an insatiable desire to know where they are going and what they do while they are away. Off they go, too. Now, he's really on his own for the long, cold winter.

He doesn't know it, but the birds and the squirrels are quite content:

"The beach was so warm and beautiful, and the squirrels were so happy to be done flying, they decided to have a fiesta. They went swimming and ate mangoes, with salt, and lime. They played he marimba and danced the merengue. The party lasted all night long. (Did you hear that, Lionel Richie?)

Fans will be happy to share another story about the irascible Mr. Fookwire, the bevy of birds who inhabit his back yard and the sage squirrels who will try anything. When facing the loneliness of winter and after fielding a long distance call that he could only interpret came from the newly arrived squirrels, he decides that he might well join them:

"He loaded it up with his easel, paints, and brushes, fixed himself a snack of cottage cheese with pepper, and hit the road. Then he drove twelve miles an hour all the way to Santa Vaca."

Imagine the joy!

The premise of the book, both linguistic and artistic, is to have a laugh and a bunch of giggles. Both artists ensure that young children will delight in the characters...each and every one of them. They will be surprised at the ingenuity and tenacity of the squirrels, the unique beauty of the beleaguered birds and the grumpiness of the man who seems (at last) to love them all. Take a careful look at every illustration created and the entertainment value rises exponentially. Great fun for those who choose to share this new tale!   
 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Birds of a Feather, by Francesco Pittau & Bernadette Gervais. Chronicle Books, Raincoast. 2012. $28.99 ages 4 and up

"Emperor penguins are the largest of the 17 penguin species. They can stay underwater longer than any other bird - the longest recorded dive was 21 minutes - and can dive more than 1,500 feet (460 meters) down."

The back cover asks the following questions:
"Can you recognize a mockingbird by its egg?
A crane by its silhouette?
An owl by its eye?
A cardinal by its feathers?

If you had to answer 'no' to any of those questions, this is the book for you. For, in it after many careful perusals, you will find the answer to each of those questions, and so much more.

This is a beautifully crafted, brilliantly designed and inventively interactive new book whose subject is birds, and which includes more than forty different ones. With its silhouette flaps that give clues to what is to be found once lifted, and its short descriptive text about those birds chosen to include, the creators have found a way to get even young children interested in all things avian.

Kids love guessing games, and this one provides just such a thing on every page...first heads and legs that fold open bottom to top and top to bottom, followed by full pages heads, then feathered wings, eggs, a mix and match puzzle and finally four piece puzzles that open to expose two full bodied birds.
Short text is found inside many of the flaps and provides tidbits of information to budding birdwatchers.

A beautiful package all round!

Wild About You, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Marc Brown. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2012. $20.99 ages 3 and up

"I haven't got space in my
nest," screeched the hawk.
The tree kangaroo scrambled
forward to snatch it.
She said, "I have room in my
pouch, I will hatch it.
No matter what kind of a bird
it might be,
It can live in my tree and sing
sweetly to me."

What fun it is to have Judy Sierra and Marc Brown return to the Springfield Zoo, with babies in mind. Be sure to check out its predecessors: Wild About Books (Knopf, 2004) and ZooZical (Knopf, 2011)!

In their new book, the focus is on a tree kangaroo and a panda pair, childless and longing for new additions to their families. It is the time of year for new arrivals, but not for everyone. So, an animal rescue van is watched with great attention when it drives into the zoo, bent on a mission to find a home for an endangered egg. The many birds who are gathered have every reason in the world not to help. The tree kangaroo, however, would be delighted:

"She kept the egg cozy for week after week,
Till she heard the tap-tap of her new baby's beak.
"I've hatched out a penguin," she said. "Oh my word.
I wasn't expecting this sort of a bird."

Of course, they fall for each other and the tree kangaroo is homey and happy. Every animal in the zoo is prepared to help in the rearing of this newest resident.  The kangaroo and penguin find love and comfort in one another and all is well.

But, what about the pandas? They are not so happy, until a tiny stray makes its presence known. Papa Panda is intrigued:

"You're a kind of a sort of a cat of a bear.
You're roly. You're poly. You're quite pandalicious.
Yes, you are the answer to our wildest wishes."

Can't you just hear yourself tapping your toes and slapping your thighs as you share this book with children? Of course, you can. The subject, animals and adoption, is bound to capture their attention. The clever verses will beg repetition. The love exhibited and sense of community created to care for the youngsters is lively and lovely. The brightly colored, patterned pages will keep listeners attentive and engaged as the story unfolds, and even allow for a frantic search when the new little ones, unfamiliar with their surroundings, lose sight of their parents. Kids will be quick to help them home. The final double page spread provides an 'all's well that ends well' moment.

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, written by Linda Ravin Lodding and illustrated by Suzanne Beaky. Flashlight Press, 2011. $16.95 ages 5 and up

"When Mr. and Mrs. Buckmeister dashed home from work late one night, they noticed that Ernestine looked pale. "Maybe she needs some face painting lessons," said Mr. Buckmeister. Nanny O'Dear just said, "Oh, dear."

I suspect we have all felt, at one time or another, as both Ernestine and Nanny O'Dear felt at that pivotal moment. Ernestine lives in a house of over-achievers where her father's catch phrase is "live life to the fullest", and where her mother zips out the door each day suggesting that she "make every moment count”. Poor Ernestine!

In direct contrast to the life that Ralph Fletcher and his siblings lived, making most moments their own and learning about what had importance to them,  Ernestine's life is one lesson followed by the next. Every day....something new to be learned, and always on the advice of her parents. Even Nanny O'Dear has some trouble keeping all those lessons straight. I love the illustrations showing her yodeling in yoga class (OOPS!) and playing the tuba during water ballet (double OOPS!) and karate kicking the many skeins of yarn in her knitting lesson (should I say triple?!). It's just too much.

She longs to spend time with her neighbor:

"On her way to lessons each day,
Ernestine slowed down long enough
to watch Hugo play in his yard.

He flip flopped on his trampoline,
giddy-upped like a cowboy,
and bounced his ball."

Full of yearning to be like Hugo, Ernestine is dragged to the next lesson. When she finally gets a small taste of freedom and the joy that Hugo enjoys, Ernestine schedules 'something new!' Being in control for one long, glorious afternnoon adds a new dimension to her life, and the way she wants to live it.

Without being preachy, and packed with humorous artwork that puts things in real perspective, this is a story that may give parents and children pause to consider what is truly important in life. Then, it just takes time and effort to make it happen!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marshfield Dreams, written by Ralph Fletcher. Square Fish, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2012. $10.99 ages 8 and up

"Outside, the chicken coop looked like a murder site. The fence smashed in. Ugly blotches of blood all over the snow. We didn't see any rooster bodies, but feathers were scattered everywhere. I stood there, shocked, trying to force the icy air into my lungs. "They were attacked!" I finally croaked."

I have always been impressed with Ralph Fletcher's thoughts on writing. Not long ago I finished reading Boy Writers (Stenhouse, 2006) and I recently added Guy-Write (Henry Holt, 2012) to my Kindle so I can check out bits and pieces of his writing wisdom no matter where I am. He knows so much and shares it with a real need to help us understand that boys are skilled writers, with much to say to those who will read and listen. In his many other books concerning writing he offers great advice for getting started at making it an important part of each day and for learning about the world and ourselves.

I also know him to be a thoughtful and experienced writer of fiction and picture books, having read such titles as Twilight Comes Twice (Clarion, 2007), Also Known as Rowan Pohi (Graphia, 2011), Spider Boy (Thomas Allen, 2009) and The Sandman (Henry Holt, 2008).

In this book about growing up in Marshfield, MA we learn a great deal about the time of and the setting for his family stories. Ralph is the oldest of nine children, and his stories are perfect fare if you are wanting the students in your classrooms to learn about writing memoir. Each chapter is easy to read, and stands alone. It would be a great read aloud in the classroom or at home, reading all of the stories straight through, or one at a time whenever the mood strikes. Each begins with a family photo, giving life to his siblings. He includes a map of their neighborhood before the reading beings; I found myself referring to that map at many different points. Drawing a map is a terrific strategy for young writers to use when they set out to tell a story, or a set of stories as Ralph has done. I tried it myself and found that it triggered memories of events and people that I haven't thought about for many years. Believe me, it doesn't need to be an artist's accomplished rendering of said neighborhood. The memories were all there!

Ralph knew his siblings well, and has telling observations to make about their distinct personalities:

"In November we got report cards. I sneaked a peek at Jimmy's. His grades were lower than mine, a lot lower, which didn't make any sense. I knew that Jimmy was smarter than me, but on that report card, there was no grade for knowing where snakes sleep in the heat of the day, for being able to tell the difference between the skull of a cat or a beaver, a salamander or a mud puppy. It wasn't fair, but I told myself that the woods would always be the place where Jimmy learned best. It that school he would always be a straight-A student."

Today's children, and Mr. Fletcher's audience for these stories, might be surprised at the amount of freedom these young people had. They explored nature for hours without adult supervision, climbed trees and fell out of them, combed creeks for treasure, and showed great independence in caring for each other. Their days were not a series of planned lessons and activities; they were left to their own devices to make amazing discoveries and live life. As many people long for simpler times and less stress, they can look to the stories written here about a loving family, who share humor, sadness, and great admiration for each other.

That's what memories are made of...am I right?

Frog and Fly, written and illustrated by Jeff Mack. Philomel, Penguin. 2012. $13.99 ages 3 and up

"Why did you kiss me?
I kissed you because I love
flies!
How sweet! Do you really
love flies?
I do. I really love flies...

SLURP!"

Here's another sweet collection of stories. There are six of them, and they are all very short. They are funny, sly and show young readers and listeners how much fun can be had with words and language. The fact that they also look a bit like comics just adds to the allure and entertainment.

I am sure that I have mentioned in previous posts that I live in awe of creative people and their constant thinking about new ways to tell stories, and to bring a love of words and reading to their audience. In these tiny tales, the frog and fly meet up in a variety of places and for any number of reasons. You might think that they are friends. It seems that they are. Then, comes the surprise!

Each tale is told with wordplay and humor. The frog is a wily creature and uses his many wiles to convince the fly that he has no ulterior motive beyond interest and concern. I could include any of them in the text of this post, but will leave you to discover them for yourself with your children. I know they will want to hear about Frog and Fly more than once. And I don't think it will be long until they are ready to read them all on their own, and entertain anyone willing to lend an attentive ear.

We hope that eventually the frog will get his just desserts. Does he? I'm not telling....

Get your fly and frog voices ready if you want to share this story with a batch of added fun...kids will love you for it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Monsters' Monster, written and Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell. Little , Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group. 2012. $ 18.50 ages 4 and up

"But Monster didn't think
he was a monster.
He didn't think he was anything...
...but thankful to be ALIVE!
Monster became still, sniffling
a hint of sweetness in the morning
air. Suddenly, he let out a ROAR
and smashed through the dungeon's
wall."

Now, here's a picture perfect book for monsters...young and old! You will be captivated by the telling, the images, the irascible characters. It's so much fun to read out loud and that is a 'good thing'. It's sure to become a favorite and, while it isn't intended only to be read at Halloween, it will be great fun for your Halloween party and any other time, as well.

 The three little monsters (Grouch, Grump and Gloom 'n Doom) spend hours each and every day arguing:

"Every day they argued over who was the biggest, baddest monster.
Who could complain the loudest?
Who could throw the most terrible tantrum?
Who was the most miserable?
These debates always ended in a brawl."

Their problems with each other are soon be solved. The three little monsters are bent on creating the biggest monster anyone has ever seen. You better believe it! They collect all the materials needed and set their minds to working at their inventive masterpiece. A chance meeting with a lightning bolt gives the monster powerful life; the little ones are delighted until they hear his first words, and feel his strong arms wrapping them in a warm embrace. What have they done?

Monster has nothing in common with their imagined creation, except his size and his perceived 'monsternous'. He does have a very important lesson to teach in a gentle, emotional story that will have listeners giggling, agog, and eventually mellow. There is nothing they can now do to change who he really is; so, they make the best of it!

I love this book. Its design is lively and lovely, its characters unique and its story a tender moment for all those engaged in the listening. Patrick McDonnell captures the essence of childhood with these quirky guys and entertains us with a story to remember with great admiration.

Shiver Me Timbers! poems by Douglas Florian and pirates by Robert Neubecker. Beach Lane, Simon & Schuster. 2012. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"Pirates wear long scraggly
Beards on their chins.
Pirates wear smirks
With immense evil grins.
Pirates have parrots
And eat alligator.
Pirates shoot first
And then ask questions later."

If you spend any time with kids, especially young ones, you will know how they love pirates, and all the frightening, funny things they do!  Douglas Florian obviously remembers this from his childhood, or has been reminded of it in the recent past. In this new book, he has penned a series of poems about those dastardly devils of the seas and given them new life.

Look carefully at the kids on the cover to know those who will be wanting to dress as pirates for all of the Halloween festivities this year. They are already preparing their costumes, and practicing their pirate talk and singing their 'groggy' songs. The treasure is there for them to take, and the silliness abounds on the face of the skeleton that festoons the 'skull & bones' flag. Thrilled with their plunder they take center stage for excited readers.

There are 19 very entertaining poems for us to share, and share them we will...again and again! The many characteristic attributes of pirates is first up, as referenced at the beginning of this post. There is an explanation of the vernacular that pirates use when speaking amongst themselves, and that we need to know should we encounter one of their crew. We are privy to their code of conduct. Who knew they had one?

"Don't take a bath.
Avoid all math.
It's best to yell
And blessed to smell.
Act rash and rude.
Dash down your food.
Be sure to slurp
And belch and burp."

Oh boy, what joy!  Rules to live by; that's for sure, matey!

There is a list of synonyms, a description of the punishment that wayward pirates face, their food, their heroes, and much about description. For each new entry, Robert Neubecker produces an apt image for readers to peruse and ponder. The telltale signs for pirates we have known and loved, imagined and admired...they are all here:

"I'm Captain Kidd,
Me treasure is hid
In a chest on Gardiners Isle.
Beneath the ground
It can be found:
Gold coins (that's why I smile).
Been buried here
Fer many a year
Since 1669.
So if one day
It comes yer way,
Remember: It's all mine!"

Get your r-r-r-rs ready to roll and your mean face on, practice your pirate language and get set to share these poems repeatedly! It's a surefire winner.

A Picture Book of Harry Houdini, written by David A. Adler and Michael S. Adler and illustrated by Matt Collins. Holiday House, Thomas Allen & Son. 2009. $8.95 ages 8 and up

"When he was twelve, Ehrich ran away from home. He wandered, did odd jobs, and performed magic whenever he could. For a time he joined a circus as an escape artist. He called himself "Eric the Great."

I'm thinking ahead a bit today, and want to share three books that I think would be a great addition to your home or classroom library, for a variety of reasons, and as Halloween approaches. Can that be true?

The first is the newest on my long list of picture book biographies, and will intrigue listeners with Harry Houdini's magical performances. It begins with a scene from backstage as his assistants prepare a water barrel for Houdini. We can see that his arms and wrists are shackled with iron. He promises his audience that his assistants will ensure his safety; and then he lets them seal the metal can with a lid and SIX heavy padlocks. Three minutes later, Houdini emerges...some escape artist!

This book by David Adler is just one in a long list of picture book biographies that he has written. They are popular because he does his homework and regales his readers with important events from the celebrated subject's life.

Ehrich Weisz had five siblings, a bleak life and not much promise for the future. He set to work early in order to help support his family. He worked hard at many jobs, but always took time to watch circus magicians if given the chance. When he was 17, he changed his name to Harry Houdini and the rest, as they say, is history. He set out to be the most famous magician in the world, working with his wife on stage and learning new tricks quickly. The magic show was fine; but Harry wanted to do more. He began developing his escape tricks in order to set himself apart. It was amazing to watch him escape from the most frightening spots:

"In Germany special cuffs were made to hold him, but they couldn't. And the theaters in England, Germany, France, and Russia couldn't hold all the people who wanted to see his shows."

His death was dramatic, and accidental. The world had lost one of its legends. The writing is entertaining and accessible for those wanting a taste for Houdini and his legacy. Matt Collins creates detailed and incredibly realistic images to help us know the man, his life, the setting and time, and his love of magic and performance. The perspective changes are especially dramatic.

A list of important dates, source notes, a selected bibliography, recommended websites and a telling author's note are added.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

The No 1 Car Spotter, written by Atinuke and illustrated by Warwick Johnson Cadwell. Walker Books, 2010. ages 6 and up

"Let me introduce myself. My name is Oluwalase Babatunde Benson. But everybody calls me No. 1. The No. 1. I am the No. 1 car spotter n my village. Car spotting is the only hobby in this village. Grandmother, Mama and all the aunties think that no such hobby should be allowed."

Another great character and set of short stories from Atinuke! The No. 1 Car Spotter's African village is nowhere special, he says. His country has much more than his small home village does. In towns and cities nearby there is much action; but where he lives there is only talk of 'such things'. What's a boy to do where there is nothing else to do but work?

Whenever they have spare time, Oluwalase and his grandfather partake of their favorite hobby...car spotting. His grandfather has taught him well; they both know cars by the sounds of their engines and by the way they look from far-off. They are brilliant at what they do!

"What grandfather does not know about car spotting is not to know."

There are four stories included in this collection, and each is as entertaining as the one before and the one following it. It would be a great readaloud for a classroom, or for a pair of students to share with each other. There is humor here, but it does not negate the seriousness of some of the issues being presented.

Oluwalase must help in a village where many of the older men, including his father, have moved to the city to make enough money to support their families back home. While he seems to be involved in one adventure after another, they mean helping with the work of the village while also giving aid to those in need. It takes much thought to find a solution to his grandmother's need for a doctor's care. The same when the cart that transports market goods breaks down, and the villagers are left with no way to take their goods to sell.

The artwork brings readers into the village to meet the narrator and his family, friends and neighbors. The perspectives change to offer a variety of views as the action moves from story to story. Here is a boy who lives in Africa, faces difficulties that help him realize the part he plays in the lives of his family and within his village, and entertains early readers with a story that they will truly enjoy and long to share with others. He is bright, articulate, keen on life and can be depended on when help is needed or ideas sought.

I have great admiration for Atinuke's gift for storytelling and look forward to every new book she writes.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Quiet Place, written by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small. Farrar Straus Grioux, Douglas & McIntyre. 2012. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"Snow came down all night and made my whole world new! This morning everything was white! I ran outside and made a snow angel. Do you remember the one we saw in the book at the library last year? Mother says it s a funny time of year for snow, and it will all melt by tomorrow. Where will the snow angel go?"

Speaking of marvelous places, Sarah Stewart and David Small have created another amazing story about a very special, consoling 'quiet place'.
Would that we all could go there...and we can, in sharing this truly lovely new collaboration.

A move is always a challenge...whether across town, across the province or to a brand new country. There is a good deal of anxiety that accompanies such change. Leaving what you know and love behind results in sadness and even heartache.

So it is for Isabel. David Small's tender front endpaper is awash with the sadness of leaving. In the breaking dawn, we see three women holding tight to each other in the soft glow of home, as two men fill a trailer with family belongings and suitcases. The title page shows the car and trailer moving out, while the youngest waves goodbye. The sun is shining over the nearby hills and the small village is awakening. Mama reaches for her young daughter as Isabel focuses on where they have been, rather than where they are going. Mama recognizes her sorrow.

It is 1957. Isabel and her family are leaving Mexico for a better life in the United States. Isabel's first letter to her Auntie Lupita is written in English, a means for practicing her new language. She thanks her aunt for her letter, written in Spanish and so welcome to someone who is going to miss home and all that is familiar.

Isabel is made of strong stuff. She makes the best of the move; loving the first snowfall, appreciating her new teacher and even learning better English. She sends loving letters to her aunt telling her of their life in America. She and her mama are baking cakes for parties, just as they did in Mexico. She keeps busy with other pursuits, including creating a 'quiet place' for herself where she can dream her dreams and read her books.

As the family settles into their new home, Isabel becomes more involved with helping her mother, and meeting new children her age. Her birthday is the perfect day for getting to know them better; she asks her guests to bring their favorite word as a gift. The celebration allows her guests to discover her haven and to become a part of the memories from Mexico that she carries in her heart.

Life changes for each of us. Isabel makes the best of it, and we are witness to the change that takes place.  Sharing her thoughts and dreams with her aunt, being supported by a loving family that recognizes her need for security and an opportunity to explore her own artistic creativity help Isabel adjust and move forward with new friends in a brand new place.

I cannot tell you how much I admire David Small's art...I would just go on and on, page after page wanting you to take note of the color, the detail, the expressions, the setting and time, and the joy that her 'special place' affords Isabel. Just wait until you open the gatefold that brings this remarkable story to an end. Wondrous to say the very least!      

Lulu and the Brontosaurus, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Lane Smith. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, 2010. $7.99 ages 5 and up

"Lulu, remember, hated hearing no. She really, really hated hearing no. So she screeched till all the birds fled from the trees, and then she threw herself down on the forest floor, and then she kicked her heels and waved her arms. The brontosaurus waited patiently, without saying one more word, until she had stopped with the screeching and kicking and waving."

It isn't long since I told you about the second Lulu book, Lulu Walks the Dogs. I loved it so much that the first one went right on my Amazon list, and it arrived late last week. So, here I am this morning to tell you about Lulu and her demands for a pet that not many would consider.

You might remember that Lulu is an outspoken, spoiled, and very feisty young woman. When she wants something, she gets it! This is another early chapter book that your kids are going to love. The narrator (or author) is back with her cryptic observations of life and of Lulu in particular. From the beginning she tells us that  dinosaurs and people did not inhabit earth at the same time. But, it's her book and she is going to tell the story:

"(Is that where a brontosaurus would live? I'm afraid that I'm not absolutely sure. But since I'm the person writing this story, I'm putting this brontosaurus in a forest, along with a lot of other wild beasts that I'm absolutely sure did not live on Earth when dinosaurs were there.)

Lulu is definitely, as described...a real burr in the side. And she wants a brontosaurus for her birthday. Her parents, in not their usual way of dealing with their daughter, refuse her request and leave it at that. Can she be convinced that there are other more appropriate gifts for a young girl...I don't think so!

Off she goes on a hunt to find her heart's desire. There is a surprise in store for her...the brontosaurus she covets has much in common with Lulu, and that is not an easy a lesson for this stubborn young miss to digest. Nothing keeps her from what she seeks. The brontosaurus is the answer to her prayers. Or, is he? Seems he is as determined to have a pet as Lulu is. He insists on good manners, and that is a lesson she has not yet learned. What happens when two immovable objects meet? A test of perseverance and patience ensues. In the end,  the author offers her captivated audience a choice from three scenarios.

Which do you prefer?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

You Are Stardust, written by Elin Kelsey, with artwork by Soyeon Kim. Owlkids, 2012. $$18.95 ages 5 and up

"You learned to speak
the same way baby
birds learn to sing...
..by chatting with your
parents.
"Ma ma ma!"
"Tweet tweet tweet!"
Be still.
Listen."

What an extraordinary book this is! It is perfectly balanced with quiet, thoughtful words and spellbinding, detailed dioramas. It is a book to be shared with awe and wonder between child and adult, and will be made even better each time it is read.

In text that is natural and open, Elin Kelsey brings her scientific knowledge of the earth to young readers. She explains that we are made of  earth, water, air and stardust. Our relationship to the plants and the animals that share our world has been determined since the beginning of time and has evolved naturally over those millions of years:

"You are stardust.
Every tiny atom in your body
came from a star that exploded
long before you were born."

Well aware of her audience and its propensity for thinking big thoughts, the author uses current science to explain the wonder of those connections. We breathe in pollen that might then, when released from our body to the earth, grow a new plant. We grow, shed our hair and do many of the same things that animals do. While it may give us pause, and cause the occasional shiver of disgust, we are home to 'millions of microorganisms.' Eeeew! Being a planet is a nice thought, though!

Soyeon Kim's artwork will draw attention and focus on  the colors, shapes, and materials chosen to give life to the tone of the story and the beauty that is YOU.  There are seven...dynamic, and full of tiny surprises that will bring children back to the book again and again. If you remove the book jacket, you will discover an explanation of the art she has created and be privy to some of those remarkable details.

Elin Kelsey loves this world we live in, and wants her audience to have that same feeling. Don't miss this astonishing book!

"Be still.
Listen.
Like you, the
Earth breathes."

Daisy's Perfect Word, written by Sandra V Feder and illustrated by Susan Mitchell. Kids Can Press, 2012. $15.95 ages 5 and up

"Daisy loved the sound of engaged. It sounded as if it must be splendid. And when Miss Goldner explained what an engagement was - a promise to be married - Daisy knew it was splendid. But it was also sad, because at the end of the school year, Miss Goldner would be moving away."

Daisy is one of those optimistic, friendly, keen-on-the-world girls. She loves words, she loves school and she loves her teacher, Miss Goldner. Miss Goldner is one of those empowering, agreeable, kid-loving teachers whose presence brings joy to her students. That is seen when she announces that she is getting married and will be leaving her job to move with her husband to live elsewhere. The children are saddened to know she will not be there when the next school year begins. A decision is made that they will each bring her an engagement gift.

Daisy is also very thoughtful; she spends a great deal of time and gives much thought to the perfect gift for her beloved teacher. As a lover of words, Daisy keeps collections of her favorite words 'in a green notebook covered with purple polka dots'. She does not add to those lists until she has determined the new word is worthy of the precious space. The word for her teacher must be right from all perspectives...not too long and not too short, useful while also exciting, just right for kids and teachers, not too light and airy. Daisy thinks about that perfect word ALL the time.

One evening when she is taking a break from her problem, she offers to put her little sister to bed. It is while they are reading and enjoying the bedtime rituals that she happens upon the solution:

"As Daisy tickled her, Lily laughed and laughed. And that's when it came to Daisy - the perfect word for Miss Goldner! Daisy couldn't believe her good luck, She kissed Lily good-night and ran back to her room. The word was so perfect that she wrote it in her notebook on its very own page."

The next morning when Miss Goldner has opened each of her many gifts, Daisy makes an announcement:

"This word is perfect for Miss Goldner," Daisy said. "It's great for saying loudly and for whispering softly. It's not too long or too short, and I know both kids and grown-ups like it. It's not a made-up world, but it sounds like it could be, and it sure feels good in your mouth."

She's right....it's just the thing!

This early years novel will find fans for its accessibility as readers move from story book to short chapter book form. The illustrations are appealing, the short chapters make it move quickly and they will like Daisy, her friends, her thoughtfulness toward her teacher and also anticipate that perfect word. The addition of Daisy's word lists (all with space for adding another, so long as the book belongs to the reader) and a 'golden glossary' add appeal, and encouragement to try something the same when the reading is done.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

One Year in Coal Harbor, written by Polly Horvath. Groundwood, 2012. $14.95 ages 9 and up

"But, I thought he's not really among us. That's how he's kept his kindliness. He exists in the thin places. He hovers there. He floats. I knew these places from when my parents had disappeared and I felt I floated, not quite in touch with people who had lives in gear on Planet Earth. It was like he was the outline of who he was but the substance was not available to anyone."

Do you remember Primrose Squab? If not, you likely didn't read Polly Horvath's first story about her in Everything on a Waffle (2001). She is a young woman who is remarkably unforgettable. You won't be sorry to meet up with her in this engaging and well-written sequel.

There are many quotes I would love to share with you. Needless to say, they have found a way into my writing notebook. Polly Horvath is a profound and accomplished author whose stories are on my
'favorites' shelf and have, in fact, been reread. That is not something I do very often as there are so many new books to read every single day!

Enough...get to the story! Primrose lives in the fishing village called Coal Harbor on Canada's west coast, and loves her community and most of the people in it. Her parents have returned following their year lost at sea, and things have come back to normal. Her father fishes, her mother works at a B & B, and Primrose spends a good deal of time helping Miss Bowzer in her restaurant, quaintly named the Girl on the Red Swing. Primrose likes to help with the cooking; but, she especially likes collecting favorite recipes and has plans to publish a cookbook.

Primrose has an ulterior motive for spending time with Miss Bowzer...she thinks that she would be a perfect match for her Uncle Jack, who helped care for her while her parents were gone. Other characters who have real presence in this story are Evie and Bert, a couple who are pleased to welcome Ked, a foster child and a new friend for Primrose. As events play out concerning the cookbook collection of recipes and a protest against a logging operation that will clear cut some nearby mountains, Ked remains a bit of a mystery to Primrose. He says little about himself and his life prior to his arrival in Coal Harbor. But, they become good friends and like to spend time together.

There is humor in the telling, and also some dark times. Polly Horvath manages to mix the two with aplomb and left me wanting to know more about her wonderful characters. While you can read this book without having read the first one, your reading life will be better for having read both. The setting is perfectly beautiful, and the sense of community is evident on every page...with all of its warts and blemishes.

I love Primrose. Her voice is strong, humorous, thoughtful, learned and always charming:

"But Miss Connon always said she had no patience with people who kept a white-knuckled grip on ignorance when any fool could see that if you didn't know a word all you had to do was LOOK IT UP. I noticed that Miss Lark was of the ignorance-is-a-terminal-condition-school because she had taken all of the Mary Oliver and Walt Whitman books from the free-time reading shelves and replaced them with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys."

Don't miss visiting with Primrose in the pages of this wonderful book! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kids of Kabul:Living Bravely Through a Never-ending War. Written by Deborah Ellis. Groundwood, 2012. $15.95 ages 12 and up

"It gets very dark in our house at night, and sometimes I get afraid. When you hear things in the dark and you can't see what they are, anybody would be afraid. It doesn't mean I'm not brave. But if someone shoots a gun or there is yelling or a cat screams, it can get scary. When I get scared I try to think of football or I practice my English."

It has been ten years since Deborah Ellis wrote her Breadwinner trilogy, bringing to her readers the plight of children in war-torn Afghanistan. Now, she has returned to this ravaged country to listen to the children about what the war has meant to them. What has happened to them since the Taliban lost power more than ten years ago?

Each entry begins with an introduction written by the author to detail some of the issues that face the children with whom she spoke: poverty, health care, the position that women hold within their society, education. There are twenty voices, and the children range in age from 10 to 17. Readers in North America will be surprised at the stories they have to tell.

Following the introductory paragraphs, the children speak about their lives. As we listen to their voices we become aware of how their daily lives are affected by the ongoing turmoil in their country:

"I am lucky though, because my mother stands up to him on this matter. She tells me to go to school, to study hard and make a good future for us.
My mother never had the chance to go to school. She cannot read or write. She has no experience of these things. But she knows how hard her life is, and she thinks that education might be the way to an easier life."   (Karima, 14)

The stories are diverse, and informative for those who share them. Some are heartbreaking, others are hopeful. Shabona makes a very interesting (and perhaps frightening) point when she asks:

"Will there be another war? We hope not! Afghanistan has had too much war. If war has to happen, let it happen somewhere else. Do you have war in Canada? Maybe it is your turn, then."

There is much for us to ponder when we hear their stories. I think that this would be a book worthy of sharing in a middle years classroom, allowing it to encourage discussion and for some, further reading.